Changes in Ancelotti’s debut: Casillas, di Maria, Arbeloa can’t crack Real Madrid XI

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Iker Casillas’s expected return to Real Madrid’s starting lineup was so highly anticipated, completely objective not-a-pro-Real-Madrid paper Marca printed a note of congratulations on Sunday morning.

“Welcome home, Iker,” the headline read, speaking with a familiarity that makes last names inappropriate. “Tonight the goalkeeper returns to the Real Madrid starting line-up …”

Hours later, Diego López — the man who became Real Madrid’s number one his January acquisition — was announced as Real Madrid’s starter for today’s match.

[MORE: Isco’s late goal gives Real Madrid win over Betis.]

“Ancelotti’s eagerness to re-establish the normal order seems to have given Iker the upper hand over Diego López – at least for the time being,” Marca wrote this morning.

Oops. More from Marca:

Now it is up to Iker to cement his grip on a first-team place, conscious that Ancelotti – who is delighted to have two-world class shotstoppers on his hands – will not be afraid to pull the trigger and switch things over if he deems it necessary.

The Italian has been at pains to avoid his decision leaking out, even claiming that he had yet to determine which goalkeeper would play. “It’s not an easy decision and it will come down to small details that are difficult to explain. They are both top professionals, are training well and did well in preseason”, he stated.

Ancelotti knows that the issue is a delicate one and wants to handle it with care. He is fully aware that last season, the controversy over the number 1 spot caused a rift in the dressing room and amongst the fans – one he is desperate to heal.

source:  After the match, March trotted out what’s sure to be the company line. Not that Casillas’s time at the Confederations Cup (and break afterward) aren’t legitimate factors, but when Gianluigi Buffon is starting the Supercoppa Italiana the same day Casillas is said to be behind in training, you have to think these excuses are only as important a you want them to be.

Again, Marca:

Ancelotti had already warned on the eve of the match that he was not certain who the first choice goalkeeper should be and he finally opted for Lopez who completed a full pre-season, while Casillas had only spent the past twenty days with the side.

Casillas versus López was only one of the curiosities from Ancelotti’s first match in charge. Some of these issues foreseeable, but now that an official game is in the book, we can start discussing some of the implications.

Free Cristiano! – Not that Cristiano Ronaldo was ever limited in what he could do under José Mourinho, but today he really seemed liberated to go wherever he thought the ball would end up. His average position made him the most left-leaning of Real’s attacking midfielders, but he was only slightly left of Isco. At full time, Ronaldo had attempted 11 shots, four finding their way on goal. 

Ángel Di María is the one to make way – There aren’t many who deny Di María’s influence, but whereas some think he’s merely a fine player, others see him as an absolute world-class talent. I tend to fall into the second group, because although the Argentine winger doesn’t put up the eye-popping goal totals, he does everything else. Unfortunately, that everything else-ness was on the bench at kickoff, with Isco starting in his place. He eventually came on the 69th minute for MesütÖzil.

Alvaro Arbeloa loses his spot, too – He’s been good enough to start at right back for Spain, but that never tempered criticism of Alvaro Arbeloa. It appears Carlo Ancelotti is the same camp as the detractors, because Daniel Carvajal, brought back to Spain this summer from Bayer Leverkusen, got the start.

source:  No sign of Kaká – A popular theory after Ancelotti’s move from Paris Saint-Germain held Kaká would get a fresh start under the man who guided at AC Milan. Perhaps that has happenned, but today, although Real Madrid spent only four minutes in the lead, Kaká was an unused sub. Özil, Isco, and Luka Modric got starts. Casemiro and Di María were called off the bench. But there was no time for Kaká.

Similar system, different tactics – You don’t want to read too much into the tactics, as they could have been tailored to Real Betis, but in a system that was similar to the one José Mourinho used before he left Real Madrid, it was interesting to see how much Los Blancos relied on their left side. Both goals were generated down that flank, as were most of the team’s chances, with all of the team’s attacking midfielders’ average positions left side of striker Karim Benzema. Perhaps that’s what a healthy Marcelo will do for you – implore you to go left. It was interesting, nonetheless.

But does/did that expose Ramos? –  Sergio Ramos was beaten badly on Real Betis’s only goal. Cedric, a 21-year-old Congolese attacker brought in from Numancia, put Ramos on his heals in a one-on-one before going right (and, right around him), setting up an easy finish for Jorge Molina. Ramos is a talented defender capable of handling those situations better.

It’s only one game, but for Real Madrid, it was a very interesting one.

UEFA Europa League Final preview: Manchester United vs. Ajax

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Jose Mourinho’s big European gamble takes center stage on Wednesday in Sweden, when Manchester United attempts to topple young Ajax in the UEFA Europa League Final.

United’s chances for UEFA Champions League qualification, a magnificent opportunity, are overshadowed by the pall cast over Manchester by sinister terrorist attacks at a pop concert that killed and injured many on Monday night.

Alas, there’s soccer to be played, and Mourinho is looking to make it a trio of shiny items in his first year on the job. United beat Leicester City for the Community Shield, then topped Southampton in the EFL Cup Final en route to Sweden.

United’s well-documented dearth of healthy defenders will march out one more time on Wednesday, with Chris Smalling and Phil Jones tasked with manning the center of the back line. Expect Antonio Valencia and Matteo Darmian out wide.

[ MORE: Full 2016-17 season reviews

Despite the injury to Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Mourinho’s attack is going to give Ajax fits. Marcus Rashford has been next level for most of the second half of the season, and United will also likely feature Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Paul Pogba atop Ander Herrera.

If someone is going to break United down, it could be midfield wizards Davy Klaassen and Lasse Schone. The creative middle men have a variety of options to find with the ball, including on-loan Chelsea man Bertrand Traore and Danish teenager Kasper Dolberg.

But how will they deal with United’s attack? Sure Ajax has stopped Lyon, Schalke, Copenhagen, and Legia Warsaw, but United and Mourinho? That’s another challenge for Peter Bosz and his men.

Ajax won the 1992 UEFA Cup, and this is United’s first ever trip to this particular final. The Red Devils are heavy favorites, and we expect United to prevail. Don’t sleep on Juan Mata heroics. Call it 3-1.

Allardyce resigns, opening up intriguing vacancy at Palace

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Sam Allardyce is walking away on top outside the relegation zone.

The veteran Premier League manager, 62, resigned his post as Crystal Palace on Tuesday, weeks after leading another team to safety.

The move ends a tumultuous eight months for Allardyce, who was fired as England manager after an undercover sting exposed unethical dealings with agents.

[ MORE: Full 2016-17 season reviews

It also comes about an hour after somebody wrote that Crystal Palace should move on from Allardyce. What a jerk, that somebody.

Rarely at a loss for words, here’s Big Sam from cpfc.co.uk:

I want to be able to savour life while I’m still relatively young and when I’m still relatively healthy enough to do all the things I want to do, like travel, spend more time with my family and grandchildren without the huge pressure that comes with being a football manager.

This is the right time for me. I have no ambitions to take another job, I simply want to be able to enjoy all the things you cannot really enjoy with the 24/7 demands of managing any football club, let alone one in the Premier League.”

All kidding aside — and I’m far from a Big Sam fan — congrats to the man on walking away to enjoy the finer things in life. He had a heck of a run, and we’ll see how long he can resist being away from the fray. Cheers, Sam.

Coach Valverde leaves Athletic, will reportedly join Barca

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MADRID (AP) Athletic Bilbao says Ernesto Valverde will not remain as the team’s coach next season, clearing the way for his expected move to Barcelona.

Athletic said Tuesday that the coach will give more details about his departure in a news conference on Wednesday.

The Mundo Deportivo newspaper reported that Valverde has already reached a deal with Barcelona to replace Luis Enrique, who announced earlier this year that he would not continue with the Catalan club.

[ MORE: Full 2016-17 season reviews

Barcelona ends its season after the Copa del Rey final against Alaves on Saturday.

The 53-year-old Valverde reportedly will sign a two-year contract with Barcelona, with an option for a third season. The announcement is expected next week.

A former forward, Valverde played two seasons with Barcelona in the late 1980s.

He previously coached Espanyol, Olympiakos, Villarreal and Valencia.

A burning question for each Premier League team (and the relegated)

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We continue our postseason review of the Premier League with the big questions bearing down on 22 (soon to be 23) teams.

Twenty Premier League sides (and two already-promoted Championship clubs) have work to do in order to achieve their aims.

Chelsea, Liverpool, Spurs, and Man City want to a UEFA Champions League title. Manchester United, too, but the Red Devils join Arsenal as sides aiming to compete for titles.

[ MORE: Full 2016-17 season reviews

Others, like West Ham, Everton, and Southampton, are prepared to grow toward top-end competitions, while Stoke City and Leicester City hope to take the next step after relatively disappointing campaigns.

What’s the top question for each team? Read on…

Arsenal  – This one’s easy: Forget will Arsene Wenger stay on (He will) — Will the Gunners name a sporting director and spend, spend, spend to rejoin the elite?

Bournemouth – Manager Eddie Howe and chairman Jeff Mostyn have steadily built the South coast team into a stylish threat that it isn’t afraid to spend, but can they build on their Top Half finish. More importantly, can they hang onto 16-goal man Joshua King, who scored more goals than anyone not on a European-qualifying team?

Brighton and Hove Albion – Chris Hughton is now thrice the Championship manager of the season, now can he identify which players can help him stay in the Premier League?

Burnley – Sean Dyche and the Clarets dug deep into their pocket books to stay in the Premier League for another season, now can the tiny club make the astute moves to do it again?

Chelsea – How will Antonio Conte organize his squad for his first season in the UEFA Champions League with Chelsea is a good one, but what will he do with older stars Diego Costa, Willian, and Cesc Fabregas?

Crystal Palace – Sam Allardyce may want to leave, which is fine, so who’s the right man to keep a very talented XI from underachieving? And will they be able to hang onto Wilfried Zaha?

Everton – This is less about squad than schedule: Assuming the Toffees dust their summer qualifier, how will Ronald Koeman negotiate both the Europa League and the Premier League?

Hull City – With Marco Silva reportedly off to Porto, there are two main questions for Hull: Can they find a new boss capable of keeping them near the top of the Championship, and able to convince ownership to keep spending?

Leicester City – Will Riyad Mahrez and Jamie Vardy still be there come August?

Liverpool – Can Jurgen Klopp straighten out his defending and motivate a squad even when big names aren’t on the other side of the field?

Manchester City – Will another year of additions allow Pep Guardiola to assert his genius in a third major European league?

Manchester United – Is there a good replacement for Zlatan Ibrahimovic at the top of Jose Mourinho’s XI?

Middlesbrough – If the major pieces stick around, Boro has the tools to compete for the Championship title… but will the major pieces stick around?

Newcastle United – Rafa Benitez will again flip the roster at St. James Park, but can he bring the new boys together fast enough to avoid a relegation race?

Southampton – Is Claude Puel going to be the manager? If that one’s too easy, then will Virgil Van Dijk remain at St. Mary’s?

Stoke City – At what point does administration demand the Potters take the next step, or bounce Mark Hughes?

Sunderland – Will Ellis Short and company actually spend, or will Sunderland’s absence from the top flight be a long one?

Swansea City – Assuming Gylfi Sigurdsson leaves, how will Paul Clement address his attack while also fixing his back line and finding a metronome?

Tottenham Hotspur – Can Harry Kane, Dele Alli, and Mauricio Pochettino punch through the glass ceiling to claim a Premier League title or sustained Champions Leagur run?

Watford – How many managers will the Hornets employ in 2017-18?

West Bromwich Albion – Tony Pulis is asking to spend. If the Baggies back him, can he break free from his defensive shell and build a team that aims for more than 40 points and another season in the Premier League?

West Ham United – Both chairman David Gold and manager Slaven Bilic want to make West Ham a big, big club. Can they find the next Dimitri Payet and finally find the elite striker they’ve been chasing for years?